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James Franco’s Movie Column: ‘The Keeping Room’ is a Feminist War Movie

James Franco's Movie Column: 'The Keeping Room' is a Feminist War Movie


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This is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is a place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them, but a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry — where writers review other writer’s books — the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. —James Franco

James: Hey, man.

Semaj: Hey, man. What’s up?

James: This movie. “The Keeping Room.” It’s a movie about women.

Semaj: Right.

James: And we’re two dudes, talking about it.

Semaj: No. I could be a woman. At least your womanly side.

James: Okay, but it’s still me, a guy, talking to myself, a guy, about a movie about women defending themselves against evil men. Even if you are my womanly side.

Semaj: Whatever, man, there’s nothing we can do about your gender…

James: Well, yes, there is.

Semaj: Okay, whatever. For now, let’s assume that I’m a woman. So, what’s this movie about?

James: Three women — two white sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their black slave (Manu Otaru) — are in the south at the end of the Civil War, trying to survive.

Semaj: Trying to survive how?

James: Well, they have to farm, and hunt, and cook for themselves. And ride horses, and basically do all the roles that they traditionally would depend on men for, but there are no men, because all the men are at war.

Semaj: So it’s sort of like “A League of Their Own”?

James: A little, yeah, the women are left behind while the men are at war. But I think it’s more like “The Walking Dead,” or “The Road,” or “Z for Zachariah,” because the women are left in a world of chaos. A war is being fought in their homeland, so all local government and civilization is thrown off — as it would be after an apocalypse, or if zombies attacked.

Semaj: Yeah, and the men of the piece (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) are so unrelentingly evil they’re almost like zombies. It’s not really a spoiler, because from the opening scene, we understand that these soldiers who show up at the farm are rapists and murders.

James: Even though they’re Union soldiers in blue.

Semaj: Right, the movie is a little like “Cold Mountain” that way. The side that we’re taught in history class was the good side is now the perpetrator of evil. Well, at least the history classes in the north teach that Lincoln and the Union were good.

James: Right, maybe their larger ideologies were good: keeping the Union together and abolishing slavery. But the Union army was still made up of individual men who had to kill and destroy, and I assume some of them, in the midst of war, did some bad things on the way to achieve those higher goals.

Semaj: Like rape and murder innocent people.

James: Well, I assume anyone who is raped is an innocent person.

Semaj: No, I meant the innocent people were the murdered ones. Of course the raped people are innocent.

James: Right, but if you’re murdered it means that you’re innocent as well. As opposed to being a soldier killed in war.

Semaj: I guess what you’re pointing out is that the women in this film are like all the civilians in all those countries we’re fighting now. They’re the civilian population that has to survive amidst the violence of war. But here it feels different because they’re Americans, and we’re not used to wars being fought on American soil.

James: Right. So I think what the movie is really saying is that war is the bad guy.

Semaj: Okay, what’s the movie really about?

James: You mean that you want me to talk about how it’s an unusual take on war, because it’s told through female perspectives?

Semaj: Yeah. It’s a feminist war movie.

James: Feminist how? Because it shows female experiences of war, which is usually seen through male perspectives?

Semaj: Duh.

James: But it was directed by a man, Daniel Barber.

Semaj: Okay, so maybe it’s not third wave feminism, or second wave, or whatever. But it is still tearing us away from the lenses through which we typically view war stories. Even if it’s a male that’s directing those lenses, he’s choosing to look at women. He’s a feminist male director.

James: Okay, fine. And what is he saying with this feminist war movie?

Semaj: I get a bunch of things. That war is evil, obviously.

James: But what if it is a war to achieve sound ideals, like the ones we talked about before?

Semaj: Yes, James. But the point is, we’re not getting the same old view of history that we’re used to: the big battles, the generals, the flashy blood, gore, and explosions. We’re seeing the people. And we’re seeing how they survive when all the civilized order they’re used to is gone.

James: Okay, and what else is it saying? That men are evil?

Semaj: Yeah. Pretty much. The men are quite bad in this. They’re scouts for Sherman’s army, or one of the Union generals — probably Sherman, because Sherman came down through the south and burned everything in his path. Sherman’s March and all that. The guys in the film, the scouts, are the harbingers of even more destruction. And because they’re not supervised by a higher authority, and because they don’t hold the ideals that maybe Lincoln stood behind, they do what they please: drink, steal, rape, and murder.

James: And you think they do that because they’re men?

Semaj: I think that’s what the movie is saying — that men without laws are animals.

James: But the women find a way to order their lives, even when the normal infrastructures of civilization have fallen around them.

Semaj: Right, women are better.

James: This movie is really women vs. men.

Semaj: Yeah, it is. The women can’t take on the whole army because A) that’s not what happened, and B) it’s not plausible. But on this small scale, the local women versus the male scouts, it becomes a battle of the sexes.

James: The only thing it’s missing is a woman-on-woman sex scene.

Semaj: Your womanly side considers that remark sexist. Plus, two of them are sisters.

James: Is the taboo of incest as strong when it’s sisters?

Semaj: I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a sister/sister incest story. It’s usually brother and sister, like in “Game of Thrones.”

James: That’s just aristocracy shit.

Semaj: Funny how we associate incest with the airy spheres of the aristocracy, but also with trailer parks and Appalachia – all the white trash jokes, etc.

James: We’re getting off-track here. I think the point you’re making is that the women have developed their own form of civilization despite the chaos that the men created.

Semaj: Yeah, that’s it.

“The Keeping Room” opens in limited theatrical release this Friday.

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